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Illinois volleyball looks to carry strong start into Big Ten schedule

The Illini finished non-conference play with a 9-2 record.

Twitter: Coach Chris Tamas (@coachtamas)

After racing out of the gate in 2016 to a 3-4 start, Illinois volleyball is in a much better situation this year.

Entering Big Ten play, the Illini are still riding a hot start to this season after winning their first six matches and only dropping one set during that run. The team swept through their first two tournaments behind strong performances by juniors Ali Bastianelli and Jordyn Poulter.

Both girls have played an enormous role in leading this rather young Illini team to victories in nine of 11 matches.

Bastianelli leads the Big Ten in blocks and is second in the nation in blocks per set.

Poulter has continued to dominate the assists category, racking up 433 this season. She also tied her career high of 60 assists in Illinois’ match against Colorado.

On the defensive end of the ball, Fighting Illini defensive specialist Brandi Donnelly has been having a strong season. Donnelly has been named Big Ten Defensive player of the Week once and recorded a season-high 25 digs in the Illini’s last non-conference matchup of the year against Missouri State.

The Illini’s undefeated season came to end when they battled the defending national champion Stanford Cardinal at home. Despite a sellout crowd for the annual “Stuff Huff” event, former Illini head coach Kevin Hambly and his Cardinal crew swept the Orange and Blue.

Bouncing back was not easy, either, as the team had trouble in its next match versus Colorado. Deciding a winner took all five sets, but Illinois could not find a way to come out on top.

Fortunately for the Illini, a trip to the Dr. Mary Jo Wynn Invitational got them back on track as they picked up three straight victories and a second-place finish in the tournament.

With Big Ten play right around the corner, the Illini don’t look like an easy matchup. After a disappointing 2016 campaign that saw the departure of long-time head coach Kevin Hambly, this 2017 squad looks to bounce back with a strong performance. New head coach Chris Tamas brings a new up-tempo look that could make some serious noise in the Big Ten, a conference stocked full of young teams. But Tamas’ squad is one that looks to rise back to the top of the college volleyball world.

That trek starts Wednesday night in Bloomington, Indiana, against the Hoosiers before a trip to in-state rival Northwestern on Saturday night. The match against the Wildcats will be played in Evanston Township High School’s gym due to renovations at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

The Illini are 22-13 in Big Ten openers and are 10-6 when opening conference play away from Huff Hall.

Illinois’ first Big Ten match at home is Oct. 6 versus Purdue.